Way back in 1995, I discovered the wide world of yoga. Well, I discovered asana, really. At the time I was horribly self-conscious, but I also liked to exercise, so I was trying to find a way to work out in my living room and not have to go to a gym. Too people-y at the gym. In high school I had belonged to the local YMCA, and went there regularly, but even then I was already a little weird about working out around other people.
So, yoga was cool for me. Here was this way I could sweat without intrusive, judgy people all around, and it even had a bit of mystical flair to it. I had a book, Light On Yoga, written by B.K.S. Iyengar, the “Father of Modern Yoga”. I’d roll out my mat each day, ready to receive my lessons. Yoga has a way of attracting the people who really need it, and I was no different. Any time I look back on this period of my life, I feel immense gratitude. Life always meets us where we’re at, if we let it.
Anyway, it turns out that what I really needed wasn’t a workout at all. Instead, it was cleansing and healing for my heart and soul, and I’d get all that too, but that’s a story for another day.
I’ll never forget the time I was reading a Yoga Journal and an article in there told me that our yoga lineage in the West was basically just gymnastic stretches. Russian gymnastics. I just about fell off my balance ball.
Honestly, this upset me. Here I’d been taught, from my infancy as a yogi, by B.K.S Iyengar no less, that these teachings were 5,000 years old and that I was a part of something huge and yet exclusive too.
I had been told that there was some kind of mystical power in an Anjali mudra that would ultimately unlock … something … and that I would ascend another rung on the enlightenment ladder. But this fucking magazine was basically saying that my moves were lifted straight from Béla Károlyi himself, and that everything I knew was a lie.
And they were. It was. This was all true. But I thought the physicality mattered. Which, it does. But not like that.
Another time, years later, I was taking a workshop with my teacher. She was talking about how we don’t really know the story behind, for example, Ujayi Breath. How she’d just taken an in-depth workshop on it, and learned that we do it wrong. She wasn’t made privy to how we do it right, she was just told we do it wrong. Or, more accurately, not completely.
Then she said something I found really interesting. It was years ago, so I don’t remember the exact words, but essentially it was “Well, why would they share all their secrets with any white man who comes knocking?” Why indeed. It had never occurred to me that what I’d been taught might not be right or even real.
So, gymnastic stretches and half-breaths. Whoop whoop.
The teachings I’d been receiving began to feel a little… hmmmm… diluted. I was having some kind of existential yogic crisis.
During my yoga journey of 20+ years, I’ve had many disappointments/realizations like this. I thought it was one thing, but it wasn’t. Or was it? Was it because I wasn’t yet capable of seeing what was true, or because I wasn’t shown the truth? And, does it even matter?
You know, the practice and philosophy of yoga is in fact over 5,000 years old. It is mentioned in the Vedas, ancient texts which are one of our only links to times that far back. There were indeed yoga poses way back then, introduced at some point, but “yoga” is not poses. One part of yoga is keeping your body healthy and limber, and that can be accomplished through asana (poses). So back in some ancient day, there were indeed some poses. I believe the Warrior poses are some of the originals. But you know what? Warrior poses all day long is boring, and we don’t like boring. “Hey!” we say one day. “Those poses look a little like these stretches… let’s incorporate!” And that’s how Downward Puppies are made.
Western civilization has long been aware of Eastern practices that bring about a wholeness of mind and spirit that we crave. So, we’ve made pilgrimages to India, for example, where we ask for the wisdom of their teachings to be bestowed upon us. And, it seems we catch some of it, but not all. Is that because we are not taught all of it, or because we did not hear or understand it all? Tough to say. There is no way to know. But it’s been going on with generations upon generations of seekers. And honestly, I just don’t think it matters.
Integration, Joining, Is What Yoga Is About
Those who made pilgrimages were excited by what they learned, and eagerly brought it back to the West. And we were excited to receive it too, whatever it was, because we too craved that wholeness of mind and spirit they had sought. So we breathed and we stretched and we adopted those moves. And you know what? We felt amazing too.
Yeah, maybe it’s gymnastics and half-breaths, but it’s our gymnastics and half-breaths. 😀
Joking aside, it does make your body feel great to bend and move.
- To test your strength and your flexibility on a regular basis, is to possess an awareness and a relationship with your body that many people don’t.
- To breathe with a deep and purposeful breath, even if it’s not as deep as it could be, even if they’re doing it deeper in India, is to feed our brains with more nourishment than most people do.
- To link these things together with our actions in the world, so that everything we do is purposeful and true to the best of our ability, is to live our yoga as we understand it. And as we continue on our own path of self-study and growth, we evolve into more. We receive more, and we can express more. We can power through more, we can protect more too.
You know, if I’m only getting a half dose, that’s just fine with me for now.
Real Life Yoga
For some reason, I do this mental walkabout quite often… what my thoughts and actions mean, who did they originally belong to, and why I perpetuate them now.
What do I get out of an asana practice, if it’s ultimately just gymnastics? Can’t I just forego that part and study the philosophy? The answer is of course yes. But I like to work out. Bending, stretching, testing and re-working is right up my alley, so my yoga practice will always incorporate what amounts to gymnastics. That’s cool with me.
The other day I was working with private clients, and I realized the entire session was basically inspired by my teacher, who I still call “my teacher”, even though I haven’t practiced with her regularly in 6+ years.
She’s my teacher because her teachings mean something to me.
They spoke to me then, and they speak through me now.
One of the sequences we did that day was a series of 3 very deep leg stretches. When it was first taught to me, she stopped halfway through so that we could feel the effect of one leg being so stretched out, and the other still so tight. “This is why we do yoga!” she proclaimed. And this is exactly how I teach it now, because that moment was so profound to me.
THIS, is why we do it. Ease and openness in the body. When the body is calm and quiet, the mind follows. We become better receivers of the life around us. It doesn’t matter how you accomplish it; your task as the seeker is to simply create that space.
You need a calm, happy, healthy body, because WE all need your calm, happy, healthy mind.
Recently the modern yoga world suffered the sudden death of an important and well-loved teacher. I know she was hugely influential on my teachers, all of them… not just “my teacher”. Which means, on some level, she influenced me too. B.K.S. Iyengar, my very first teacher, personally taught one of my favorite teachers in Seattle, as well as the woman I would study with for my own certification. He influenced me as well.
Back in the late 90’s, soon after I outgrew my living room practice with Mr. Iyengar, my real-life teachers would begin undoing the awful form I’d taught myself. In their teachings, they would be sharing with me their own journey on the way to becoming my teacher, who I would later echo in my own classes, sharing my own journeys. And so on.
After the private session the other day, I sent a message to “my teacher”. Just to say thanks for sharing her path with me, and I’m so glad and thankful for her influence on my life and teaching. Her response: “You can’t even believe how good this makes me feel that we get to share this together and with everyone who is open to it. This is what matters.”
Yes, this really is what matters. This is our lineage. I am humbled by it, and I am grateful for it, whatever it is.
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